The Story of the Lost Child is the fourth and final of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels. It circles back to the first volume in at least two regards: it finally catches up with the frame narrative that started off My Brilliant Friend and in it both Raffaella / Lila and Elena / Lena return not only to Naples but to the neighbourhood where they spent their childhood and adolescence.
While the previous novels each spanned several years, this final one spans decades, roughly from the eighties into the 21st century, this incorporating both middle and old age of its protagonists. This shows how close Ferrante’s narrative nestles up against experience, and I mean not only in its content but in the specific way it is told – here, it mirrors the way time passes at varying speeds during different ages; a year is a very long time for a child who has not lived through many, but it passes almost without being noticed for someone who has experienced a considerable amount of them. I think everyone has noticed how time passes faster as we grow older, and Ferrante lets her series of novels reflect that structurally by giving her protagonists’ early years more room than their later ones. I am trying to avoid spoilers here, as this novel still is fairly recent and it continues to deploy a soap-operatic narrative strategy to keep the reader hooked, so I won’t be giving away any details of what is happening in The Story of the Lost Child (not that I am big on plot summaries in any case), and confine myself to saying that the feminist / political element is receding almost completely into the background (almost, but not quite – and the reader should be so sensitized by the previous novels to sense its presence even when the narrative does not shine a spotlight on it) in favour of the private circumstances of and relations between Lila and Lena.
That relationship has been at the core of the novels throughout, of course, and not the least impressive thing to admire about the Neapolitan Novels is how it has been changing constantly. Weirdly, that is something where soap opera and psychological realism meet – the first because it needs to keep the story going and thus can’t allow anything to remain static: basically, soap operas are in constant flux, there are continuous reveals of supposedly hidden sides to a character’s personality which in turn determine their various relationships. While that kind of layer cake psychology (as I like to call it) is not exactly realistic, it might end up looking very much like realism once you follow a relationship over decades as it happens in Ferrante’s novels, a period during which extreme changes in any kind of relationship are realistically almost inevitable. The difference between the two is of course that psychological realism is bound to stay within the bounds of plausibility while a soap opera emphatically is not limited by that – but this difference certainly is gradual rather than absolute, and it may be argued that in the final analysis plausibility is just another literary trope. From whichever perspective you view it, the friendship between LIla and Lena never ceases to fascinate, the way their lives revolves around each other, both drawn to and repelled by each other like twin stars, the way each mirrors the other’s hopes and desires, one always seeming to have attained what the other is lacking, and finally the way the course of this friendship traces the developments in Italian from the 1950s into the 21st century.
Like the previous volumes, The Story of the Lost Child pays close attention to language – the way it is used to not only mark geographical but also class distinctions, and how command of language, knowing how to write or talk well, can give some degree of power which is not bound to social status or financial wealth (although attaining that command will of course be greatly facilitated if one’s family is influential or wealthy). A power which can also be used to hurt – something that paradoxically not the writer Lena but Lila appears to be more aware of, maybe because, as the narrator keeps reminding us, the Neapolitan dialect Lila is speaking is inherently aggressive. So Lila attempts to erase herself out of existence like a failed novel while Lena finally finishes the memoirs of her friendship which she started at the beginning of A Brilliant Friend and publishes them, knowing this will hurt her friend’s feeling even as it might revive her failing career as an author, and so the book comes full circle in yet another regard, as that book is possibly the one we have been reading, this causing the series to metafictionally turn back upon itself. Or does it? The book Lena publishes is a referred to as a slim volume, and slim is something the Neapolitan Novels certainly are not. The circle does not quite close, there is a gap left, and in a way it is that gap which all four novels (all but the first of which are designated as “Storia” in their original Italian titles, by the way) has been revolving al the time, spinning its tale of friendship and power, of love and violence in that small but unclosable space between reality and fiction.